McWhorter on The Euphemism Treadmill.

I sometimes get annoyed with John McWhorter, but when he’s good he’s very good, and his Aeon essay on euphemisms is probably the best thing I’ve read on this vexed topic. The core of his point is in this paragraph:

What the cognitive psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker has artfully termed ‘the euphemism treadmill’ is not a tic or a stunt. It is an inevitable and, more to the point, healthy process, necessary in view of the eternal gulf between language and opinion. We think of euphemisms as one-time events, where one prissily coins a way of saying something that detracts from something unpleasant about it. That serves perfectly well as a definition of what euphemism is, but misses the point that euphemism tends to require regular renewal. This is because thought changes more slowly than we can change the words for it, and has a way of catching up with our new coinages. Since that is likely eternal, we must accept that we’ll change our terms just like we change our underwear, as a part of linguistic life in a civilised society.

But he discusses many concrete examples, such as these:

Crippled began as a sympathetic term. However, a sad reality of human society is that there are negative associations and even dismissal harboured against those with disabilities. Thus crippled became accreted with those overtones, so to speak, to the point that handicapped was fashioned as a replacement term free from such baggage.

However, because humans stayed human, it was impossible that handicapped would not, over time, become accreted with similar gunk. Enter disabled, which is now long-lived enough that many process it, too, as harbouring shades of abuse, which conditions a replacement such as differently abled. Notably, the International Society for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled later changed its name again to Rehabilitation, International; today, the organisation prefers to be known simply as ‘RI’, bypassing the inconvenience of actual words altogether. The story has been similar for retarded being replaced by cognitively impaired; for welfare, which today is more often referred to as cash assistance; or by the faceless initials of programmes disbursing it, such as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).

The crucial thing is to be able to step back from our instinctive reactions to the way such words sound to us now — we can’t help but hear the superseded ones as sounding terrible and the new ones as clean and shiny — and to realize they’re steps on an escalator, moving slowly but inexorably, and the new ones will sound as bad to the next generation as the old ones do to us. It’s just one aspect of language change in action. (Thanks, Paul!)

Comments

  1. The question is, does it actually help to consciously invent new terms when the underlying attitudes are the same? This is a question McWhorter doesn’t address. Is it really more pleasant to be called differently abled than crippled? I don’t know. I suspect it is not.

  2. I’m puzzled to understand the nature of your suspicion. We’re talking about situations where some people have said “I’d prefer you to call me X rather than Y”, are we not? Is your suspicion about the actual existence of a preference? (That it might be only a rumor, or might be counterbalanced by the converse preference.)

    Or suspicion about its nature (maybe people state the preference but they don’t really feel it), or its emotional justifiability (maybe people feel it but they shouldn’t), or other aspects?

  3. It’s another question whether switching up terms changes the underlying attitudes. No, it’s not that easy, and we’ll keep on changing our underwear until such day as our apocrine glands don’t stink.

  4. John, that and several other questions leap out of the article, which is a froth of standard-issue ideas whipped up so as to seem fresh.

    I was puzzled right at the beginning, by the claim that there is an “eternal gulf between language and opinion”, closely followed by the claim that thought changes more slowly than we can change the words for it, and has a way of catching up with our new coinages.

    Well, if thought changed more slowly than the words for it change, then euphemisms would be impossible, since in such circumstances the euphuist could not, before settling on a euphemism, have had the thought of improving on an existing expression. Euphemisms would either be impossible, or unmotivated and random.

    The clue to this puzzle is the journalistic “we” in the phrase “changes more slowly than we can change the words for it”. All the claim boils down to is that some people’s thoughts are ahead of their words, while other people’s thoughts lag behind. That is, pundits lead the pack.

    A variation on this theme occurs farther on in the article: however much we would like it to be otherwise, it’s easier to change language than to change thought. That immediately raises your question: so does changing the language change the thought ? Well, maybe – if you allow the language to lead your thought, instead of t’other way around. If not, not. But what are the differences between language and thought ? McWhorter seems to be surreptiously advocating a kind of dynamic Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

    At the end of the article, Reality is dragged in: Reality persists. It’s language we have control over – at least, for a while. What is that supposed to mean ? What happened to “opinion” and “thought” ?

  5. The examples of euphemism over time are interesting, of course. The rest of the article is a porridge lacking raisins and reasons.

  6. My long comment will probably turn out to be a good example of how opinions will not be affected by different language.

  7. At the level of preference there is of course nothing to say, except that it’s annoying when some people in the group being referred to prefer the euphemism and others reject it and insist on the older term (even apart from simple age-grading). A conspicuous example is Native American vs. Indian. But many things in life are annoying.

    What interests me is the continuing popularity of the conscious strategy of coining new words as euphemisms in order to escape the stigma attached to older words. This is quite distinct from language change, which happens involuntarily and mostly out of focus. It seems as well proven as anything can be that this strategy just doesn’t work as a method of reducing stigma, which is attached not to the word but to the referent. If you make boys use the word penis, they will cheerfully call one another penis-head, to use a trivial example. And yet we, or some of us, persist in this folly.

    The converse strategy of reclaiming the term (“If you call me a nerd, I’ll proudly call myself a nerd”) may not reduce the stigma either, but at least it reduces the verbal churn. Granted, shitstool will probably never return to popularity, but if there’s hope that Americans won’t be on their tenth term for ‘people whose ancestors were slaves’ by 2050, it’s that the stigma for this group will be reduced or eliminated.

  8. marie-lucie says:

    Stu: the article, which is a froth of standard-issue ideas whipped up so as to seem fresh

    True, but this is not a scholarly article or even one for the Times Literary Supplement or the NYRB. Judging from the titles and pictures that appear below, Aeon is a popular magazine of general interest, and the article is appropriate for its intended readership.

  9. It seems as well proven as anything can be that this strategy just doesn’t work as a method of reducing stigma, which is attached not to the word but to the referent.

    Of course, but so what? That’s like saying “Going into an air-conditioned room won’t do anything about global warming, so why bother?” Because it feels better, even if the good feeling is only temporary, that’s why. Are you really going to tell people who feel insulted by term X that they should just put up with it because term Y will sound just as bad in a generation?

  10. It seems as well proven as anything can be that this strategy just doesn’t work as a method of reducing stigma, which is attached not to the word but to the referent.

    “Reducing stigma” isn’t necessarily the only goal, though. If someone finds it hurtful to be called crippled but not differently abled, then their life will improve in that dimension as the latter becomes more popular than the former, even if the change of words doesn’t instantly cause a change in social attitudes (and even if their children will have to find a replacement for differently abled, which by then will be as hurtful as crippled today).

  11. marie-lucie says:

    crippled, disabled vs differently abled

    About 25 years ago I suddenly lost the use of my right arm (I have it back now). I still had a functioning right hand, at the end of what felt like two sticks joined by an elastic (at the elbow). I could pick up something, like the handle of a bag that was on the floor, and carry it, but not lift it: it stayed where my hand was hanging from my useless arm. If I wanted my right hand to be somewhere, like resting on a table, I had to pick it up with my left hand and be careful to position enough of my right arm in the desired location, otherwise the hand (and the arm) would slip right off the table. Once properly positioned and supported, my right hand could hold a pen or pencil and write fairly legibly, but only two letters at a time: I had to use my left hand to push my right hand a little to the right to prevent the next letters from forming on top of the first ones, the tiny motions normally moving one’s arm on the paper as one writes being impossible. Forget about picking up a cup with that hand. So many everyday motions require two hands, like filling a glass from a tap, or washing one’s hair. With just one hand some of these things may still be possible, but require deliberation about how to proceed step by step with the other hand. These were only a few of the things that were difficult or impossible. I was not differently abled, even though I learned some coping strategies, I was now disabled, although invisibly: nobody thinks that someone who is walking around, with limbs apparently intact, might have a crippling problem. Fortunately for me, things started to improve (very slowly, by minute steps) within a few days, but it took months before I could behave more or less normally, and even after all this time and various forms of treatment over the years I am occasionally reminded that I have never got completely over my real handicap.

  12. Because it feels better, even if the good feeling is only temporary, that’s why.

    But does it, really? Does a shit sandwich taste better on genuine San Francisco sourdough? Give me leave to doubt it.

    Are you really going to tell people who feel insulted by term X that they should just put up with it because term Y will sound just as bad in a generation?

    No, of course not. But if people don’t like me, it’s not actually going to help to tell them to call me George.

  13. Give me leave to doubt it.

    You can doubt whatever you like, but I doubt all the people who say they do prefer the new terms are lying.

  14. Jim (another one) says:

    ‘But does it, really? Does a shit sandwich taste better on genuine San Francisco sourdough? ”

    That seems to be the whole point of euphemisms anyway. isn’t it?

    Sometimes there is an additionally process going on. Sometimes the culture changes so that the presuppositions that informed the words meaning change and change the meaning. Recently I saw “condescending” used in a complimentary way, to mean something like “down to earth, not pompous:” as oppose dot what it means now. The difference was that this was in something I was reading when I was binging on Jane Austen. In that era social inequality was accepted as natural and good, so stooping down to be on a level with someone lower was an act of generosity, not an insult predicated on claiming a superiority that could not exist.

  15. J.W. Brewer says:

    I would say the shortcoming of the article is that it focuses on the “good” things about the phenomenon (and I include as a “good” thing the recognition that it is to some extent inevitable and that it is foolish to rail excessively against the inevitable) without mentioning any of the accompanying negatives, some of which have been adverted to above.

    As to whether there is a moral obligation to humor people’s subjective preferences, is there an arguable parallel to quack remedies for intractable medical ailments? (Let’s say the modest kind of quack remedies that are scientifically bogus but do not have inherently harmful side effects other than lack of efficacy and are comparatively unlikely to dissuade someone from pursuing a different course of treatment that would be efficacious.) What’s the harm of Grandma paying a modest amount of money to some huckster advertising in the color supplement to the Sunday paper for a copper bracelet or magnetized thingamabob that is unlikely to have any effect on her underlying arthritis? And hey, maybe if she actually believes the hype she’ll get lucky and the placebo effect will do her some good? But the parallel breaks down if we have to affirmatively refer positively to the quack remedy in our own conversations with Grandma as opposed to just keeping quiet about it rather than criticizing her to her face.

  16. As to whether there is a moral obligation to humor people’s subjective preferences

    You’re loading the dice by your very vocabulary. To “humor” people’s “subjective preferences”? What other kind of preferences are there? If someone says “I really hate the nickname you just used, please don’t use it,” do you 1) go on using it anyway (because who cares about subjective preferences), 2) roll your eyes, sigh exaggeratedly, and say “All right, I’ll humor you,” or 3) make a mental note, perhaps say “OK, thanks for letting me know,” and avoid using the name they dislike? I really don’t see where Grandma and quack doctors come into it.

  17. J.W. Brewer says:

    Real-life example. My younger brother’s name is David. When we were growing up together he was always David rather than Dave or Davy. At some point after I’d left home to go off to college and he was in high school he decided he wanted to be known as “Dave.” Our parents dutifully tried to adjust their usage to humor him, which was a sensible (if not mandatory) strategy for the parents of a teenager trying to “choose their battles.” I came home for Christmas break or whatever, thought this was ridiculous, and went on calling him David, which was a sensible (if not mandatory) strategy for a 19 year old not interested in dealing with a 15 year old’s drama. (He reverted to the unclipped version of his name after a few years.)

    But you often don’t actually know what groups qua groups want to be called because groups don’t have minds and thus don’t have preferences. All you know is what the loudest or most visible group of self-appointed activists want you to call the people they purport to represent. Or you know which term is or isn’t in vogue for virtue-signalling among a given social circle.

  18. J.W. Brewer says:

    To try to be more positive, one beneficial thing the perspective of McWhorter’s article might contribute could be a willingness on the part of advocates for new labels to just say “hey, the old lexeme has just gotten too skunked by accumulated negative baggage — it’s not the old word’s fault.” Because one minor annoyance of the treadmill is the tendency of advocates to come up with objective-sounding reasons why the old word is inherently bad that are total BS. E.g. one can find among partisans of “disabled” (or its replacement …) bogus folk-etymologies of “handicapped” which are intended to show that the old word is rightly taboo because it was from the get go a bad, negative, pejorative, disparaging word. And presumably these BS arguments serve some sort of felt need for justification of the change of labels, and it would be nice if non-BS justifications could be given instead.

  19. J.W. Brewer says:

    To restate one of my earlier points more generally – the name for a given individual is arbitrary and mutable in a way that a name for given group isn’t, because the referents are different in nature and the standard name (and or the range of acceptable synonym-names) of a group is a social convention that involves the coordination of a much larger and more varied group of users of whatever the language is. But even for an individual, attitudes may vary, with e.g. people acting in an “official” role saying you and your friends can use whatever name you want, but when you’re filling out official forms you better use the name that matches your driver’s license / birth certificate / whatever, and if you find that intolerable there’s a complicated legal/bureaucratic process you can go through to officially change your official name.

    But even for an individual, calling them “what they want to be called” is not clearly benign or neutral, at least not in a context where that allows them not solely to characterize their own “identity” in some sort of vacuum but to impose on you their characterization of the nature of their social relationship with you. E.g., should you call your public junior high school assistant principal who has an Ed.D. from some bullshit diploma mill “Dr. SURNAME” instead of “Mr. SURNAME,” given that you know that the former is his personal preference? Answer, yes, but only because he’s an insecure asshole who is in a position to exert arbitrary power over you, not because you respect him. Indeed, you are allowed to respect him less because he has this preference.

  20. You’re conflating treating oppressed groups respectfully with kowtowing to authority figures, and apparently mixing in some sibling issues as well.

  21. J.W. Brewer says:

    Ah, but what if the enforcers of the preferred new vocabulary are not wholly or primarily members of the “oppressed groups” themselves but authority figures who wish to be kowtowed to? Using the latest vocabulary for oppressed groups is one way that privileged/careerist white college kids signal to elite gatekeepers that they deserve advancement to the higher circles of the elite, unlike those bigoted rubes out in flyover country who are behind the times in their vocabulary. That’s certainly not the *only* social function of the euphemism treadmill, but the cultural-capital function it serves (rewarding those with the cognitive skills and social connections that make it easier to stay au courant, with an increased rate of lexeme churn making it harder for the great unwashed masses to keep up), and the class-hierarchy implications of that, are not unworthy of notice from a descriptive-sociolinguistics perspective.

  22. In the best traditions of internet commenting I did not read McWhorter’s piece (but I’ve sinned, I’ve gravely sinned in reading the OP and comments. Marie-Lucie, it’s quite an ordeal you went through. And to turn it into a lesson on vocabulary! you must be a born teacher), but want to note that apparently the desire to change a name for a disadvantaged (differently advantaged?) group comes from a believe in the magical powers of words. If we just rename a thing we don’t like (or attitude toward which we don’t like) it will become better. No it won’t. If I understand it, Mr. McWhorter says as much. We can (or even should) be polite and change our speech on demand, but it really is for nothing.

    By the way, how about a (sub?)community of deaf people known as deaf pride? Do they require a special name for their physical difference from the rest of the population?

  23. It’s amazing to me the number of people who are cheerfully willing to deny the lived experience of people who say that not using terms they find insulting or objectifying does in fact make their lives better. “No it doesn’t, you’re imagining it!”

  24. I am not denying anything. Believe in the power of words is a powerful drug.

  25. To be fair, it’s true that any proposed change in language use is worthless and wrong unless it is embraced by the entire human and animal population and will immediately instantiate a perfect society with no suffering or Minimalist Program. That’s how we judge proposals in other areas and so it’s only just that we apply the same insanely high levels of scrutiny to requests by put-upon people that we refer to them in ways they find less disrespectful.

  26. J.W. Brewer says:

    Going back to McWhorter’s examples, I’m struck by how one is not like the others, viz. his list of words for “that place you go when you need to urinate/defecate.” It may be true that continuing discomfort with the referent creates an incentive for new euphemisms to be generated, but the old ones generally don’t get completely skunked, and multiple strata of euphemisms remain in use side by side — it’s not like saying “bathroom” instead of “restroom” instead of “men’s room” runs a particularly high risk of causing offense or leading people to believe you are insensitive and/or immoral.

    And “welfare” is not so skunked that e.g. New York City doesn’t want people who might qualify for it to be unable to find information online because they aren’t up to speed on the latest euphemism, as can be seen here: http://www1.nyc.gov/nyc-resources/service/1222/public-assistance-or-welfare.

  27. It is possible that if one rolls through several changes of terminology fast enough, then perhaps they fail to accumulate negative connotation (because it may take some time for the bad connotations to develop?) and then perhaps the problem is solved.

    It’s also possible that the society as a whole changes its attitudes, irrespective of the vocabulary, at which point one change of the terminology does away with the luggage of the insensitive times.

    But of course JWB has a point too, that some neo-euphemism, especially the more convoluted ones, may have primary function in being the markers of class rather than in improving the well being of whoever is called the new vs. the old way.

  28. “You’re conflating treating oppressed groups respectfully with kowtowing to authority figures…”

    Who said anything about “oppressed” groups? Who is to make the distinction between one “oppressing” word or another? By the very choice of that adjective, you’ve underscored the perilous subjective preference which insidiously characterizes so much fast-track inclusion onto today’s euphemism treadmill.

  29. dainichi says:

    I think one can argue that the frequency-weighted average “pleasantness” of all terms for a referent equals the underlying attitude toward it. So a high pleasantness term might indeed be more pleasant than the alternatives, but the more it’s used, the less pleasant all the terms will become, including the term itself (assuming the underlying attitude stays the same).

    I’m not questioning the fact that some people prefer some terms to others, and I understand thoughtful people who use considerate terms (and I try to be one of them). But the overall benefit to the referents and the language community of adding new euphemistic terms is debatable. The class marker effect mentioned by J.W. Brewer and the aggregate effort of having to learn new terms for things are definitely non-negligible.

    One thing that annoys me is the underlying assumption that “natural” is automatically “good” (I sense this a lot in the descriptionist camp, but correct me if I’m wrong). The article mentions that the euphemism treadmill is a “healthy process”, but healthy is a word with positive connotation, and I’m not sure how the author gets there from “natural”, which I find more objective. Whether the process can or should be slowed down or stopped, is far beyond my ability to estimate, but automatically concluding it shouldn’t because it’s “natural” would seem insincere to me.

  30. > It’s amazing to me the number of people who are cheerfully willing to deny the lived experience of people who say that not using terms they find insulting or objectifying does in fact make their lives better. “No it doesn’t, you’re imagining it!”

    That’s a straw man.

    What you’re encountering here is people who are skeptical of second- or third-hand reports that a term is insulting to members of some group. You yourself have shown such skepticism before — see http://languagehat.com/gyp/ — so it should hardly be “amazing” to you.

    And I think the skepticism is justified, since I’m sure we’ve all heard stories about (for example) disabled people who chafe at the newer euphemisms, viewing them as condescending, or as offensive insofar as they imply that a euphemism is needed. Such people may, of course, be the exception rather than the rule; but most of us really have no way of finding out.

  31. J.W.Brewer has a point, the word for an indoor shithouse is different from the others in the article because it’s regard for the comfort of the interlocutor(s), or just the speaker themself, that drives the treadmill, not consideration for the (real or imagined) feelings of a referent group.

    But isn’t this the same mechanism that drives the appearance of new hip words and slang as well? The basic human need for group membership and approval, making us adopt new words to avoid the ones that are deemed insensitive, yucky or dated?

    EDIT: I realize that some people have hotter feelings about the ‘group reference’ words because unlike the others you may get a public telling-off for being insensitive / racist, and and having somebody else impose their world view on you is never pleasant, be they right or wrong.

  32. “What you’re encountering here is people who are skeptical of second- or third-hand reports that a term is insulting to members of some group.”

    That’s one thing, and that’s cool and all, but it’s certainly not all that has been encountered here. We also see people who doubt or otherwise downplay first-hand reports and first-hand requests, like years of “please call me Dave.”

    We see people who appear to be insisting that a request surely comes from somebody’s belief that word magic will change reality, rather than from just making somebody’s day better.

    These are distinct behaviors from “inquiry by listening to first-hand reports over third-hand”, which is great.

  33. Is part of the problem here that folks don’t know many people in the groups being referred to, not well enough to ask them questions about what terms they prefer and whether they think there’s a broad consensus?

    The epistemic hair-tearing over how we can truly know what people prefer, it seems too much. For an individual, just ask them and learn whether they’re Indian or Native or what. For addressing a group where there is no single preferred term, they know that, do something reasonable and you have my permission to be unhurt by anyone who rips your head off. If your trans friend misleads you that everybody is down with “tranny”, your embarrassment is recoverable. All this just isn’t so hard, 99.9% of the time.

    The underlying point really seems to be more that if preferences differ or preferences change, they’re not really real. And underlying that, feel free to beg out of this applying to *you*, but people are strongly motivated to have a ready defense against the risk of being called bigoted.

    Anyway, the article may be the most non-philosophically-groundbreaking froth, but the underpants simile was new to me, so I appreciate it.

  34. You yourself have shown such skepticism before — see http://languagehat.com/gyp/ — so it should hardly be “amazing” to you.

    But, see, I learned from that discussion, and I don’t use the word any more. It’s not the skepticism that’s amazing to me, it’s the refusal to consider that one might be wrong.

    We see people who appear to be insisting that a request surely comes from somebody’s belief that word magic will change reality, rather than from just making somebody’s day better.

    Indeed, and I can’t help but feel that the conflation is useful in order to avoid having to deal with the issue.

    Is part of the problem here that folks don’t know many people in the groups being referred to, not well enough to ask them questions about what terms they prefer and whether they think there’s a broad consensus?

    I suspect so.

    All this just isn’t so hard, 99.9% of the time.

    Exactly, and I appreciate your eloquent comments on the topic.

  35. “is there an arguable parallel to quack remedies for intractable medical ailments?”

    No, because a quack remedy by definition claims to do something that it doesn’t do. No-one is actually claiming that, say, calling a black person a “black person” instead of The Other Thing will, all by itself, fix racism — it’s just a minor step in the right direction.

    The real parallel within the frame of reference you bring up is whether there’s any point in a person taking painkillers while they’re also undergoing treatment for a chronic disease.

    “But a few paracetamol won’t cure you!”
    “No, hopefully the treatment will do that, given time. This just makes me more comfortable.”
    “But it won’t even make the treatment work any faster!”
    “Maybe not, but it reduces my immediate suffering, and that in itself is important to me. Besides, it’s possible that by improving my quality of life in small ways, the painkiller will help to speed up the resolution of the underlying problem.”

    Now, is there value in reminding ourselves that euphemism is merely treating the symptom, not the disease? Absolutely. The mistake is in thinking that treating a symptom is pointless, or somehow incompatible with also treating the disease.

  36. Or, as my wife said years ago, yesterday’s euphemisms are tomorrow’s insults.

  37. I’m not sure “differently abled” every really caught on that well. It seems to be a favorite example of Political Correctness Gone Mad, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard it used in the real world at all, much less Gone Mad. Has anyone else seen it used widely? Whereas “handicapped” seems to have actually slipped out of use except with respect to parking places, and “crippled” seems to be consigned to metaphor these days.

    What has caught on in the real world among people who are careful about these issues is the general principle of preferring adjectives to nouns, and sometimes prepositional phrases to adjectives. Talking about people with disabilities (prepositional phrase) rather than disabled (adjective) people, after having long left behind nouns like “cripple.” When talking about a person of an ethnicity which has suffered oppression or stigma, sometimes going the adjective route distances one from stigmatizing discourse, talking about Black people rather than Blacks; Jewish people rather than Jews (though in neither of those cases is the noun actually unacceptable — using the words “Jews” or “Blacks” in the right contexts is not at all offensive — but going the adjective route distances one from offensive discourse, which tends to go straight to the noun).

    As a general principle, using a noun to denote group membership most strongly identifies the referent in terms of the group; adjectives, less strongly, and so on, for more peripheral constructions. If you want to avoid “reducing” the person to their group membership, then changing the construction to a more peripheral one is useful.

    It seems like this development (the use of peripheral constructions to avoid essentializing group membership) might be generally & permanently useful in a way in which the euphemism treadmill is not. But I suppose it’s possible to taint anything.

  38. BTW, in terms of constructions for expressing membership in marginalized groups, sometimes the worst thing you can do is take an existing noun and use it as an adjective. If you’re talking about a “Jew politician” you’re way off the deep end into David Duke territory. I’ve noticed that the same phenomenon seems to be in use when Republicans insist on saying “Democrat representative” rather than “Democratic representative”. You can imagine the same thing in a disability context calling someone a “cripple teacher” or the like. Funny how that works.

  39. Part of the motivation for “Democrat representative” is that Republican representatives are democrats too, but the distinction is lost in speech. But what you are talking about certainly has some effect.

  40. J.W. Brewer says:

    Re “tomorrow’s insults,” sometimes the treadmill can move on so far that a word loses its felt connection with its earlier referent and can thus be used as a more free-floating pejorative w/o offense. A good example might be “lame” in the sense of “uncool,” which doesn’t feel like it has an undertone of hostility or insensitivity toward the crippled/handicapped/disabled, because as a general matter we no longer use “lame” even pejoratively to refer to humans (as opposed to horses!) that have impaired mobility. Similarly “dumb” no longer carries a sense of implicit bias against the mute, and “cretin,” “moron,” and “idiot” are so far removed from technical use by those treating persons with mental disabilities that they can be used with impunity as insults, whereas using “retarded” as an insult risks condemnation from those concerned about insensitivity to the disabled, because that lexeme apparently hasn’t gotten far enough through the process yet. Why it is okay to insult someone by a pejorative connotating lack of intelligence as long as it is not the specific sort of lack-of-intelligence that is thought to technically qualify as a disability is an interesting question to which I have no answer to offer.

  41. J.W. Brewer says:

    And re current status of “crippled” (and clipped form “crip,” which you would expect to likely be even more problematic), there are some efforts underway among activists to “reclaim” the word as a badge of identity in much the same way other activists did with “queer,” with predictably some controversy among others in the group in question about whether this reclamation effort is in good taste or otherwise a good idea, as discussed to some extent in the Q&A here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/sarah-blahovec/disability-and-the-2016-e_b_9272966.html.

  42. Part of the motivation for “Democrat representative” is that Republican representatives are democrats too,

    That… makes no sense.

  43. “Largest minority”? Surely there are more men in the U.S. than, er, people of disability.

  44. J.W. Brewer says:

    Via google books one can find some 19th century instances of phrases like “Democrat candidate” and “straight Democrat ticket” that seem in context probably merely informal rather than pejorative. I’m not sure when/why/how the pejorative usage emerged.

  45. Factcheck.org sez:

    However, some Republican leaders have made a habit of referring to their opposition incorrectly and discourteously as the “Democrat Party.” The reason isn’t entirely clear; it may be meant to imply that the party isn’t sufficiently “democratic” in the general sense, or may just be meant as a petty insult. In August 2006, Hendrik Hertzberg traced this Republican usage, which he termed a “slur” on his party, back to the 1940s. He says it was used by opponents to needle the powerful Pendergast organization in Kansas City, which backed Harry Truman. He also says it was used often by the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy.

    I’m quite sure it has nothing to do with random 19th-century usage.

  46. I’ve also seen “Democrat [noun]” used by British publications writing about American politics, being unaware of the naming controversy and accustomed to the innocuous use of “Liberal Democrat [noun]” which seems to predominate over there.

    But here in the US, of course, it’s a clear tribal marker. A marginal case like “to vote Democrat” might escape notice, but if someone says “Democrat candidate” you know they’re not fond of the party.

  47. J.W. Brewer says:

    Geoff Nunberg in 2004 on the mysterious evolution of “Democrat party” from “rusticism” to “partisan dig”: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001565.html. There’s probably a chicken-and-egg thing where Democrats who became conscious of the “partisan dig” sense learned to omit the phrase from their own usage even in informal-register contexts where their predecessors might have used it.

  48. I was attempting to make the counterpart to Nunberg’s argument and failing miserably. The Republican argument I was trying to express is “If we call our opponents the democratic party [lower case], it implies that we are the non-democratic party, which we deny.”

  49. Bbbbbut, Democrats are republicans as well.

  50. David Marjanović says:

    Nah, Republicans who use Democrat as the adjective just want to emphasize the rat part. See also: DemoRAT, Demonrat.

    Similarly “dumb” no longer carries a sense of implicit bias against the mute, and “cretin,” “moron,” and “idiot” are so far removed from technical use by those treating persons with mental disabilities that they can be used with impunity as insults, whereas using “retarded” as an insult risks condemnation from those concerned about insensitivity to the disabled

    So do dumb, moron and idiot on etymological grounds in wider and wider circles on teh intarwebz. In the US at least, the last two were actually used as medical diagnoses, both defined as “IQ between two immeasurably low numbers”, in the early 20th century.

    Why it is okay to insult someone by a pejorative connotating lack of intelligence as long as it is not the specific sort of lack-of-intelligence that is thought to technically qualify as a disability is an interesting question to which I have no answer to offer.

    It won’t last. Stupid is already going the same way.

    Fuckwitted is safe for now.

  51. Rodger C says:

    In the US at least, the last two [moron and idiot] were actually used as medical diagnoses, both defined as “IQ between two immeasurably low numbers”, in the early 20th century.

    And between the morons and idiots were the imbeciles. I was taught all this as an actual scientific fact in civics class ~1960. Precise IQ numbers were given. The teacher and her preferred textbook were both of a certain age.

  52. And, to come full circle, lame-brained. We can still call legs lame, even if not the people who have them.

  53. @Rodger C: “And between the morons and idiots were the imbeciles.” Which makes the Russian word дебил (pronounced roughly the same as its French ancestor, “débile,” but with a hard “l”) the best fit for “moron.” The standard Russian triad is дебил – имбецил – идиот, corresponding to “moron – imbecile – idiot.” In a Russian textbook, you can still come across bits like this: “A mild degree of moronity does not entail the loss of legal capacity.”

    The Russian criteria have never been IQ-based, however.

  54. marie-lucie says:

    the Russian word дебил (pronounced roughly the same as its French ancestor, “débile,” but with a hard “l”)

    Are you saying that the French word does not end in a “hard l” ? French does not have a hard/soft distinction in its consonants. Especially, it does not have “soft” consonants (referred to as consonnes mouillées, lit. “wet consonants”.

    As for the apparent French equivalent for moron, it is (or was) officially and technically débile mental(e) (masc/fem), but in colloquial speech débile is also used as an adjective meaning ‘stupid, idiotic’ and the like, applied mostly to non-human abstractions (eg situations, turns of phrase, answers, etc).

    Another, I think older phrase for a débile mental(e) was faible d’esprit (an adjective phrase).

  55. David Marjanović says:

    Are you saying that the French word does not end in a “hard l” ?

    Sure: it isn’t velarized (“hard” in Russian terms, “broad” in Gaelic ones), which makes the Russian “soft” (palatalized, Gaelic: “slender”) L a better match than the “hard” one.

    Fun fact: because German usage of “hard” and “soft” is completely different (the fortes /p t k/ are “hard”, the lenes /b d g/ are “soft”), my Russian teachers called the Russian “soft” consonants erweicht, “softened”.

    Another, I think older phrase for a débile mental(e) was faible d’esprit

    A literal translation, Latin debilis meaning “weak” – and while I’m writing this, I notice that it might contain the mysterious PIE root *bel- “force”, one of about two that are currently reconstructed with *b-.

    It was further translated into German*, where schwachsinnig is now purely pejorative and the backformed Schwachsinn has joined the family of Unsinn “nonsense” and Blödsinn “the bullshit kind of nonsense”. Likewise Stumpfsinn < stumpfsinnig “obtuse-minded”.

    * At a time when Sinn still meant “mind” on occasion. Nowadays it’s purely “sense”, and we’re basically left without a word for “mind” distinct from “intellect” or “spirit/ghost”.

  56. The light (as opposed to dark) /l/ of French and German is normally borrowed into Russian as palatalized /l/.

  57. David Marjanović says:

    Also of Greek (-ópolis comes out as -ополь) and many others, all the way to transcriptions of Chukchi (where you can find -льы-, which is phonologically impossible in Russian itself).

  58. marie-lucie says:

    JC: The light (as opposed to dark) /l/ of French and German is normally borrowed into Russian as palatalized /l/.

    I think I learned this right here, quite some time ago. But the Russian one does not sound to me at all like the French one.

  59. @David: You are right about debilis, it is one of the words on which the reconstruction of the root *bel- is based.
    On Russian light /l/: due to its correspondence to French, German /l/ in loans I have seen it sometimes being called “European l” in the Russian literature.

  60. I’ve noticed that Russian sometimes transliterates English l as ль even where л would be a better phonetic approximation: on a list of British prime ministers, for example, there’s Арчьбальд, Бальфур, Вильсон, Гамильтон, Гарольд, Макдональд, Мельбурн, Персиваль, Чарльз and Черчилль.

  61. @marie-lucie: “Are you saying that the French word does not end in a “hard l” ?”

    It does, if the hard-soft opposition is restricted to French and its historical and regional varieties. If I understand correctly, French used to have an “l moullé” alongside the “l dur” but the former resolved itself, as it were, into [j] so that only the “hard l” remains.

    Now suppose you’re looking at the spectrum of l’s as a Russian speaker. On the soft (light) end, there is the Russian soft л (киль, литься), which is probably pretty close to the old French l moullé. (In Russian, “моль” and “мой” almost rhyme.) At the hard (dark) end, there will be the Russian л in лыжи or дебил and the English l in “the bill.” (And beyond the range, the Polish ł.) The French hard l falls somewhere between the end points of this interval.

  62. Eli Nelson says:

    Well, I don’t think French /l/ was necessarily hard even before l mouillé was vocalized to [j]. At least not if we’re using “hard” to refer to velarized /ɫ/ like Russian “hard l.” It’s possible to distinguish clear, non-velarized /l/ from palatal /ʎ/. Historically in French, “l” was vocalized to “u” in some positions (before other consonants, mainly, but also at the ends of some words in circumstances that I don’t fully understand): that I think is what is likely to have been realized as /ɫ/ in the past, and the fact that the remaining /l/ in French did not vocalize like this seems to be evidence that it was not velarized.

  63. Eli Nelson says:

    Oh, I just found a paper about l-vocalization in French. Apparently the sound change did not apply to word-final l; apparent cases of this are due to analogy from plural forms. https://www.swarthmore.edu/sites/default/files/assets/documents/linguistics/2001_manz_kathryn.pdf

  64. I’ve just noticed that I misspelled “mouillé” twice, omitting the i. My bad.

    @Eli Nelson: Manz claims that

    The l in Old French, however, had a velar tinge similar to the l in the English word all, meaning its articulation was farther back in the oral cavity.

    Which explains why it lent itself so easily to vocalization into u before consonants (as you say), which affected plural forms but not singular forms, unless via back-formation.

    Also, Catalan has a velarized “dark l” along with [ʎ]. Compare Catalan “molt” and Italian “molto.”

  65. Another, I think older phrase for a débile mental(e) was faible d’esprit (an adjective phrase).

    “Feeble-minded” was also common in English in the earlier 20th century, the era of classified morons, imbeciles and idiots. Perhaps it’s a translation from French.

  66. But the Russian one does not sound to me at all like the French one.

    Sure, but the issue is not how the Russian one sounds to you but how the French one sounds to a Russian.

  67. I wouldn’t trust that paper too much, as it contains subtle errors. For example, “Heavy stress at the beginning of words caused the attrition and deletion of unstressed vowels in the final position, which gives French its distinctive “e muet,” in contrast to the frequent vocalic endings of Italian and Spanish (for example, in the words for palm, the final vowel in French’s palme is not pronounced, whereas the final vowel in Spanish’s palma is)” conflates two distinct sound-changes. In the pre-Old-French period, all final Latin vowels were indeed lost under the influence of the stress, with the exception of a, which came to be written e and pronounced /ə/. Only much later was this schwa also lost. So the modern pronunciation of palme can only indirectly be attributed to the heavy stress of OF.

    I was interested to learn, however, that French malgré went through a period of being pronounced and even written maugré. The archaic English preposition maugre ‘in spite of’ has always been vocalized, and is now pronounced /mɔgə(r)/, but apparently this already happened in French before being reversed there.

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